The first amendment to our constitution prohibits the government from infringing on the freedom of the press, which forces all of us to be wise consumers of their information and, when necessary, hold them accountable when they misreport.
Finding responsible reporting is difficult. Very often initial reporting on a story is incorrect to some degree. But typically as time passes, fact and fiction separate and, if the story still merits coverage, more accurate information is published. This, of course, does not happen if there is no follow-up reporting clarifying facts, or if the narrative is so entrenched in the public’s mind, no typical reporter would challenge it with mitigating facts.
Public misunderstanding is exacerbated by the reality that later, more refined reporting is often not as well placed or well read as initial stories because the story has grown old. And on the web, when an interested person wants to read about an archived story, very often the initial story, that had the most errors, will come up first, before the corrected story, because it received more hits or is linked to more sites. Take that problem, add bloggers who have no editor, no supervisory board, and can’t be fired for dishonest or shabby reporting, and it becomes difficult for the average consumer to get the story right.
Let’s start with reporters.
Local reporters are generally underpaid, overworked, and trapped in their careers. Their greatest hope for promotions, larger markets, or increased pay is to get a story that is picked up by a national audience or noticed by the national press. Thus, local reporters have great incentive to be sensational in hopes of getting more interest in their story.
This is why a politician’s slip of the tongue, drunken spouse or wayward child is more newsworthy than their work in office. It explains why we so often think we’re getting the facts about a court case, and then when the jury, who actually hears and sees the pertinent evidence first hand, makes a decision contrary to the filtered and incomplete evidence presented to the public through the press, we think they’re wrong.
Though I believe all responsible reporters try to be objective, they too perceive things just as we all do, through the lens of their own values, experiences, and knowledge. Their values include their beliefs, which shape their worldview, and personal needs, which often include a need to get their story earlier in the broadcast, on the front page above the fold, or interesting enough to be distributed by other outlets. Regardless of their training and intentions, their experiences do color the way they see things. Thus, two honest reporters covering the same story might report very different accounts.
Typically reporters re-report what other reporters have written, which is why reporters are often accused of being incestuous and lazy. Reporters often re-report information that has either been discredited or modified. If they do not invest the time, or lack the ability and relationships to research their material thoroughly, misinformation is perpetuated.
Take that and then have the managing editor of a newspaper cut the story down to fit into a certain number of column inches, or the broadcast news editor shrink a story into a 45 second segment, and consumers are left with only the most dramatic impressions being presented as news.
Sadly, it does not stop there. For the print media, the headline writer forms the first impression of the story in the mind of the reader. Typically, the headline writer is not the reporter who investigated the story, but someone else whose job it is to generate interest in the story in the space and size type that works for the layout. Their job is to make the article even more interesting. The vast majority of readers DO NOT READ complete news stories. Most simply read the headline, thinking the headline is a summation of the story. A few more read the lead, and a small minority read the complete story. Thus we may have a headline that accurately reads “Mayor Johnson Accused of Sexual Assault” while the body of the story reports that the police department investigated and found no basis in fact for the accusation, and that the mayor has been exonerated.
Or, worse, the first story is about the accuser and the accusation, some comments on the gravity of the accusations, and background material on how many people in authority commit sexual assault, which implies that the mayor probably did assault someone. The story exonerating the mayor might not appear for several months. Typically the exoneration story will not be well placed or well read. By then, the mayor’s career, family and future are ruined and the reporters have moved on to their next story.
Headlines are not the story, nor are they necessarily truthful. They are advertisements for the story, and the person who wrote the headline might not have even read past the lead in the story to write the headline.
There are a few exceptions on the national level. Seldom, but sometimes, national reporters are held responsible if there is no way their bosses can justify the misrepresentation. If they make up quotes, lie, or intentionally do lazy work, they are more likely to end up like Brian Williams, Dan Rather, or more recently, Rolling Stone magazine. But the above-mentioned were discredited only because their distortions were so obvious to all that their bosses had no choice but to respond to them publicly. And remember, bloggers who have no bosses can’t be fired, they just keep writing.
Which leads us to the internet.
Recently, I read on the web that Abraham Lincoln warned all of us about believing what we read on the internet because sources are difficult to verify. So I decided to check it out and learned that aliens had impregnated a Methodist woman in Kansas, that George Bush planned 9/11, that we never landed on the moon, that Barak Obama is going to stay in office another term, and that Macaulay Culkin killed himself again!
Misreporting happens all the time without follow-up corrections or any consequences except to the subjects of the stories. News organizations have pressures that force them to move on rather than report their own misreporting. Wikipedia, which is largely composed from press reports, is so unreliable no credible academic institution will allow its students to reference it as a source. Sadly, millions refer to Wikipedia daily believing it to be reliable and factual, which it can be if we all do our part.
We as average citizens have to do our part to enhance a trustworthy press by being VERY responsible ourselves and wise to its shortcomings. Contrary to the press’s view of itself, it is made up of human beings, many of whom want to serve the general public, but who are fallible. The press not a branch of the government and it is not lofty, noble, or necessarily helpful. It is a business searching for influence and power, just like so many other businesses. But any alternative to the free press is even worse, so we have to protect it. How? By being thoughtful, informed consumers who understand there is always more to the story, by rewarding accurate reporting, and by holding those who misreport accountable.